Lemonade, we will make
With so much unfortunate news out in the world, Josh and I have taken care to keep these top messages a bit more upbeat and hopeful. Well, this time we aren’t going to do that, we’re just going to talk about what’s happening in the Austin media market, which also happens to be positive. One of media’s strongest attributes is its ability to shift gears in terms of content. We’re seeing that play out in many parts of the industry.
While raising funding for startups is difficult across the board, that didn’t stop Austin-based Atmosphere from raising a fresh $5 million round of funding for its continued growth. Atmosphere’s product thrives in public spaces, as it provides venue owners with a set-top box that plays one of the company’s streaming channels (see the explanation in the news blurbs below for more details). While social distancing measures limit crowds, that doesn’t mean people aren’t going out in public when absolutely necessary. Last week we highlighted how the company was shifting gears, or rather expanding by making their service available in places like doctor’s offices. Less eyeballs on content is supposed to mean “less valuable,” but that was before COVID-19. Now? Now I’d argue that the eyeballs you can get are likely more specific, and probably more valuable. Apparently, Atmosphere’s investors followed this logic, too.
But that isn’t the only instance of Austin-based companies making moves in this new reality for media. Recently, Austin Chronicle launched a “Chronicle Cooking” section, undoubtedly capitalizing on the increased amount of culinary activities people are participating in while stuck safe at home. Meanwhile, Texas Monthly recently launched an ongoing Livingroom Sessions music series to highlight Texas artists.
Finally, we have Austonia, the ambitious news publication startup that initially saw its plans disrupted due to the coronavirus pandemic. However, what happened instead was that those plans changed, rapidly. Austonia launched its daily newsletter two weeks ago, before it's website was even online. Normally, you’d want to do months of planning that included an ambitious awareness campaign to spread the word about the launch of your new news publication or newsletter (especially as a pre-revenue startup!). But the coronavirus dropped a bushel of lemons on the world. If you’re in the business of media, you make lemonade. And that’s exactly what Publisher Mark Dewey and the rest of his team did.
“It’s the worst of times commercially, so I just sort of put the business model on the shelf for now. We can weather this,” Dewey told me in a phone interview Thursday. “We launched early because with this crisis going on, we felt like we had to be out there covering the city. We just couldn't wait. It would be weird to come in halfway through. Plus, people are at home looking for information and even a little bored. So it's a good time to be putting content in front of them and establishing a dialogue with the [community].”
The Austonia editorial team is filled with seasoned journalists who have built their credibility over years and across publications. Thus, having such a capable team in place, it would be ill advised not to take advantage of the opportunity to build trust within the community. And during a time where the news conglomerates are handing out pink slips and issuing furloughs to journalists while the need for verified, accurate information is at an all-time high, launching is also incredibly important for the well being of Austinites.
Thus on Wednesday, Austonia.com launched with a slick design focused on enticing readers to visit regularly, rather than optimizing solely for SEO results and advertising campaigns. Most people seemed puzzled when I excitedly texted them with a link to Austonia now being online. “Why haven’t I heard about this site?” was a frequent response.
If you’ve yet to visit, it’s filled with thoughtful pieces and story angles that connect the dots across the community. For instance, Stephanie Schwartz’s feature about scientists enlisting UT-Austin’s supercomputers to combat COVID-19, Emma Freer’s excellent deep dive into the city’s COVID-19 surge plan as well as her analysis piece about coronavirus cases in high-income Austin neighborhoods. There are plenty of good human interest pieces about how this virus is impacting members of the community, like “The council member and the firefighter, separated but tied together amid an epidemic.” And surprisingly (mostly just in presentation), Austonia is prominently displaying links to coronavirus coverage from other Austin publications it found relevant or important -- almost like a low key newswire service.
“We’re trying to create a great environment for journalists to work, where they're really encouraged to use their imagination to [find angles] and go where the stories take them,” Dewey told me. “We don’t cover meetings, as we’re not a paper of record in that sense. The Statesman, KUT, Texas Tribune, and some others are well-resourced to do that. [Austonia] may attend a meeting to chase a story, but we’re a different kind of publication.”
In other words, Austonia is trying to cut through the noise to get to the most valuable stories and analysis that matter -- all the while maintaining journalistic integrity you’d expect from other well-respected news sources. It’s no wonder Austonia is the only Austin publication to receive a grant from the Facebook Journalism Project.
No matter what your situation is as a member of the local media industry, just remember these dark days will pass. Opportunities will return eventually. Until then, we’ll all be working with what we’ve got. And what we’ve got is each other.
-Tom & Josh